MassHire Downtown Boston and North Shore Career Centers Help Businesses Find Talent During COVID-19

Yes, people are getting hired during the pandemic, but it’s a lonely process

By Katie Johnston, Boston Globe Staff, Posted June 7, 2020

Zikre Haimanot is about to start a job at Drizly, the alcohol delivery platform, without ever setting foot in the company’s Boylston Street headquarters or meeting in person the managers who hired him.

And for the next few months, at least, the software engineer’s office will be in his bedroom in Dorchester — as soon as Drizly sends him money to buy a desk and chair so he can stop coding from the floor.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic that has unleashed a massive wave of unemployment as companies shut down or scaled back and has driven others to delay hiring, some people are still getting jobs. And not just in front-line customer service jobs; information technology, biotech, banking, and many other sectors are still looking for help.

But the process looks much different. There are no career fairs in hotel conference rooms or long interviews over lunch. Now candidates are showcasing their skills at virtual events and interviews are being conducted over Zoom. One national staffing company is even holding drive-thru job fairs, with candidates lining up in their cars to fill out paperwork brought to them by recruiters wearing masks and gloves.

Job candidates say the remote process can make it difficult to form a human connection or get a feel for a company’s culture, while hiring managers grapple with really getting to know applicants. Most new hires, including Haimanot, 26, who was in the middle of a 20-week training program through the Cambridge nonprofit Resilient Coders when the pandemic hit, are getting an all-virtual introduction to work. Not only was his initial presentation to potential employers conducted in a chatroom and his four interviews conducted over Google Hangouts, Haimanot will be working from his bedroom until at least October, without any coworkers around to show him the ropes.

“I am nervous to start from home and not be able to walk over to a teammate and ask a question,” he said.

Some employers are finding creative ways to get to know job candidates. One executive who used to take Senior management candidates out to dinner opted to have a glass of wine over Zoom with a job candidate —and then ended up hiring him, said Aaron Lapat, a managing partner at Park Square Executive Search in Boston. Another client, the CEO of a Boston software company, was determined to meet her top choice for chief revenue officer face to face. The candidate lived in New York, so they met in the middle, sitting at opposite ends of a park bench in Sturbridge, wearing masks.

“The live encounter just reinforced her feeling that this is someone she wanted to hire,” Lapat said.

The digital hiring process does have some advantages, said Sean McLoughlin, who leads the technology and marketing practice at the Boston recruiting firm HireMinds. In fact, conducting interviews from home may actually help an applicant get to know a hiring manager on a different level.

“You’re in someone’s house, rather than someone’s faceless conference room,” he said. “I
think that companies are still able to showcase who they are and what they value despite not being in a physical [office] space.”

Geographic boundaries are also being erased by companies suddenly more willing to consider employees in other locations.

Still, there’s a learning curve. It’s harder to read body language through a computer screen, which can lead to people interrupting each other more often, said Jerry Rubin, president of Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, a workforce development agency that has moved its services online. Among its many offerings, including job postings and live chats with employment coaches, JVS teaches candidates how to prepare for online interviews.

“We’re teaching people to [create digital] Zoom backgrounds so that they can avoid having laundry in the background,” Rubin said. “It absolutely makes a difference. … It shouldn’t, but it does.”

Vanra Huot sought help from JVS after he was laid off in April from his contract manufacturing technician job at a Cambridge biotech. After six Zoom interviews, Huot landed a job at Watertown-based Platelet BioGenesis and is working at its manufacturing facility in Waltham. He’ll eventually be producing platelets in a clean room dressed in a full “bunny suit” and goggles — a situation he acknowledges is perfect for a pandemic. And he’s earning $10 more an hour than he was before, with health insurance, a 401(k) match, and an annual bonus.

“The pandemic changed my career,” said Huot, 45, who is originally from Cambodia.

Eastern Bank has hired around 100 people since the middle of March, all remotely, and with 89 positions still to fill, the bank held its first virtual job fair last week in conjunction with the MassHire North Shore Career Center.

Kathy Thurman, the bank’s talent acquisition director, who appeared alongside the recruiting team in individual squares at the top of the screen, kicked off the event by describing the bank’s 202-year history and efforts being made to protect workers. Recruiter Samantha Arzu offered attendees tips on video interviewing. “We don’t care if you wear sweat pants,” she said. “If you’re business on the top and party on the bottom, it doesn’t matter.”

Job seekers, who were not shown onscreen, weighed in at the end of the event. One said he had a virtual interview with another company, dressed in a shirt and tie, but hadn’t landed the job. “Sitting behind a computer screen and only seeing somebody’s head is a little bit different,” he said.

To be sure, hiring is way down during the pandemic. The number of job openings in May was down 33 percent statewide compared to last May, according to Glass Technologies.

The industry with the most positions? Not surprisingly, e-commerce.

Resilient Coders, the nonprofit that provides free software-engineering training for people of color, most of whom don’t have college degrees, said more than 10 companies that had planned on hiring graduates pulled out of the most recent “demo day” at the end of April, when new trainees showed off their skills to employers, because they were scaling back due to the pandemic. Executive director David Delmar worries that employers will backslide on their commitment to diversity during the pandemic as companies focus on staying afloat, especially with hiring managers having their pick of laid-off “college-educated white guys.”

The mindset risks becoming: “In a time of economic uncertainty, we just need to ship product,” he said.

Drizly isn’t facing that problem. The delivery company has brought on more than 70 people since the pandemic started to help deal with a nearly 700 percent year-over-year spike in sales, said talent acquisition manager David Vencis. Hiring is being done exclusively through Google Hangouts, but other than that, the process hasn’t changed much. If anything, he said, it has renewed the company’s focus on candidates’ skills and values, which still shine through on pre-interview assignments and video calls.

“That’s what we should be hiring on,” Vencis said, “not, ‘Does this person look like they fit in or would I get a beer with this person?’ “

Andy Rosen of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Scott Kirsner contributed to this report.

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